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Chicago readers: Mike Allen will be interviewing Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday about innovation and automation in the city. The event is free and open to the public —register here.
1 big thing: Next-gen fertility treatments
From genetic testing to attempts to grow viable eggs from stems cells, researchers are trying to improve the success rate of fertility treatments and cut their cost.
Why it matters: About 9% of men and 11% of women of reproductive age in the U.S. experience fertility problems, resulting in a multibillion dollar industry. The next-generation of fertility treatments has the potential to change who can have children and when but they are still in the early stages of development and have high hurdles to clear.
1. Genetic testing: People are looking to genetics for insights into how likely a fertility treatment is to succeed. Artificial intelligence has been lauded as a possible future tool to augment physicians' decision-making about courses of treatment for people who have repeatedly failed IVF cycles.
2. IVG: Scientists are attempting to take adult human cells and turn them into artificial eggs or sperm in a process called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG).
- In 2016, Japanese scientists created artificial eggs from skin cells taken from a mouse's tail, fertilized and implanted them in mice, which then gave birth to pups. Now they're studying whether human gametes can be developed similarly. But there are major obstacles in developing a human system.
3. Instead of starting with stem cells, Evelyn Telfer from the University of Edinburgh recently reported isolating immature eggs from the primordial follicles in women's ovaries and activating them to grow into mature eggs in a dish. Theoretically, these would be ready to be fertilized.
- Eventually these approaches may be merged to take a stem cell all the way through to a fully mature egg in a dish.
- The bottom line: "There is a big gap between basic research and clinical applications. It will narrow as [we learn more] but basically we are in the dark," Telfer says.
2. Yes, there really is a lot of space junk
This visualization by Axios' Lazaro Gamio shows the 15,723 objects being tracked in low-Earth orbit (LEO) by the U.S. military's Joint Space Operations Center — including nearly 13,000 that are classified as space debris.
Why it matters: As space opens up to more nations, companies and possibly nonprofits, concerns are growing about how to track the growing amount of debris. This week, Vice President Mike Pence announced a "comprehensive space traffic management policy" to address the issue.
"There's a lot of ambiguity about what is up there and where it will be an hour from now, tomorrow or next week," says Jah, who's building a database in hopes that it will lead to "[global] rules of the road for good behavior" in space.
3. Axios stories
- Robots: A team in Singapore got one to assemble an IKEA chair, reports Eileen Drage O'Reilly. Yes, but: The instructions were programmed into the robot. A key step for full automation would be for AI to allow machines to learn "what" to do when presented with a task, not just "how" to do it.
- Climate: The start to this year might seem cold but so far 2018 is warm compared to historical averages, according to new federal data, writes Ben Geman.
- Automation: Steve LeVine spoke with researcher Carl Frey about anxiety over robotization. His bottom line: "What form resistance will take, I have no idea," Frey said. "But if the record is any guidance, there will be resistance. The tendencies show there will be."
4. What we're reading elsewhere
- Break down: Researchers have engineered an enzyme to better degrade a polymer in plastic bottles, per The Economist. It still works relatively slowly but if it could be sped up and produced at industrial scales, it could one day help to address the planet's plastic waste problem.
- Gender: The Atlantic's Ed Yong on a new study that found it will take 16 years to close the gender gap in the number of scientific papers published by men v. women.
- Regulate: AI is increasingly being used to defend against cyberattacks. That means we need red lines drawn for its use, two Oxford Internet Institute researchers argue in Nature News.
5. Something wondrous
There may have been dozens of planet-sized rocky bodies orbiting the Sun early in our solar system's existence, according to one hypothesis. Some of these proto-planets collided and merged, and eventually gave rise to the terrestrial planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth — we see in the inner solar system.
Now, Swiss scientists report pieces of an asteroid that fell onto Sudan's Nubian Desert in 2008 may be remnants of these "lost" planets.
- In 2015, scientists reported the intense impact of asteroids colliding wasn't enough to produce the long (40-100 micron) diamonds found within what is now known as the Almahata Sitta ureilites — a strange carbon-rich subtype of meteorites of unknown origin. Instead, they suggested they formed under immense pressure like that found deep within a planet.
- When Farhang Nabiei and his colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology analyzed the diamonds further, they found impurities of iron- and nickel-sulfides, chromite and phosphate that, they claimed this week, indicate they formed under pressures that could be created only within a "Mercury- to Mars-sized" body — "a large 'lost' planet before it was destroyed by collisions," they wrote.
The big picture: If the findings are confirmed by studying the chemical composition of more of these rare meteorites, researchers may learn what ingredients are needed to form a solar system with life-supporting planets like our own.